Artist Spotlight: High On Fire

Artist Spotlight courtesy of OccasionalJonathan

A little about me-I love all kinds of music and I am constantly on the lookout for something new and interesting. I’ve got no qualms about genre at the ripe old age of 39 but I’m probably a bit of snob, especially in the genres of Rap and Metal, I think you really have to be a snob cause there’s just so much crap out there. Just miles and miles miles miles of derivative stuff that has no soul, at least my ears.

Metal, as a genre, is a bit like a political party. It comes with rules tied to aggression and macho posturing that if not laughable is often disingenuous or just uninteresting, cookie monster ( no offense to the person with the disqus account) vocals, showy sterile instrumentation, you could go on and on. Similar to the republican party, it sometimes is so bad that it manages to satirize itself. As a genre it’s often not doing itself many favors.

However, when I like a metal band, I love a metal band and I’m all in. And I don’t know really what makes anything core, speed, grind, thrash, noise, etc. at this age, if I ever did. I really like to think of it as just ‘heavy’ music, whatever that is.

My first love of heavy was easily Henry Rollins. I was sixteen and raw in every aspect of life, barely ever spoke to people for the last few years of high school. He really helped me think about who I was and who I wanted to be and let me know that it was OK to be pissed off about things, just don’t go around being stupid about it. He also planted the seed in me that true strength was about being kind, hard as it may be to believe. From ol’ Hank Rollins big brotherness I received all kinds of musical ideologies to pursue and lose myself in, then to emerge with another big brother figure in his place-Iggy Pop(hugely important to me), Maynard James Keenan, Glenn Danzig, Michael Gira, Hubert Selby Jr., and on and on.

Point being, that even though I loved all kinds of music over the years up till now, there are always times in my life that I need some heavy music to motivate me to get up and get out and get something done, blow off some steam at the injustices around me, even though I’m obviously quite different 20 years later. And I need that heavy music to have soul, however that comes across, whether it’s James Brown or Slayer. I need to feel it in my gut.

High on Fire is fronted by a gentlemen named Matt Pike. Matt Pike used to be the guitar player in a band called Sleep. He’s the guy in the white tank top in the following excerpt from the stoner rock documentary “Such Hawks Such Hounds”.

(You can notice that for all his heaviness, he is a pretty sincere easygoing dude, one thing I love about Pike that has absolutely increased my appreciation for his music.)

So, this is all set up and backstory, albeit important to High on Fire. Sleep was as Sabbath derivative as it comes on their first record, and ended up recording their final album as basically one slow hour long length track that’s a marijuana drenched ode to riff worship. Give a listen to a few minutes of it at least if you’ve never heard it.

But the point is, Sleep was slow. Sleep was about huge sounds, tons of amps, and the sheer mass of sound. This was the early 90’s. It’s good to cover Sleep for a moment here before we move on because of the sheer contrast of what’s to come with Matt Pike’s next band High on Fire.

To emphasize this stark change let’s cut to High on Fire’s third album, Blessed Black Wings. Now Pike is singing and playing guitar like Conan the barbarian synthesized John Lee Hooker and Tom Araya’s techniques then flew away to middle earth and came back on cocaine from Mordor. If you don’t like this kind of music, that’s cool, but I at least implore you to skip to or stick with it to the 4 minute mark of the track and admire the beautiful breakdown.

Pike also has the help of Des Kensel on drums in HoF, who is off the fvcking charts. He gives the warlord gallop to the material, listening to him here is just jaw dropping.

Blessed Black Wings consists of nine songs ,released in 2005.. It is absolutely the most galloping and spurring for-when-you-need-to-face-the-world-like-a-barbarian album in existence. The insane deep grooves, Pike’s sudden and completely unhinged, climbing and twisting riff patterns, the primordial howl coming up from his guts and out of his mouth as he rages and carves out a name for himself as an all time great guitar player and riff maker. Listening closely the structure of the riffs throughout each song are constantly dynamic, with little parts added and subtracted as the groove develops. I play the guitar and I don’t know how the hell he comes up with this stuff. At 35 or so when I started listening to this band I felt like the first time I heard Eddie Van Halen play when I was a kid, and we all know that Eddie Van Halen is a dick.

When I got into HOF I was really in need of some music that would motivate me to ride into battle. Already past my mid 30’s I was in a battle to fight my way into a graduate program after not being accepted the first time applying, and working a job that didn’t even offer me benefits where I was the most valuable team member at my rank. Approaching middle age things were looking a bit on the bleak side, and Blessed Black Wings hit me like a ton of bricks, and helped me come to terms with healthy recognition of how ticked I was about my current predicament, as well as got me off my rear to do something about it.

Also worth mentioning here-Steve Albini recorded Blessed. And he really outdid himself. You can hear a leaf drop between the instruments if you paid close enough attention amongst the grooves of mayhem, but at the same time still feel like you are stuck inside a tornado.

Here is a live take of a younger Mr. Pike playing another excellent track from the album. I love this riff.

For the sake of example, we skipped a couple High on Fire records between the end of Sleep and Blessed Black Wings. But that is the best starter I’d reckon. Here is a taste of some of the first two albums, both also excellent(but not the benchmark of Blessed) The Art of Self Defense and Eyes and Teeth. This is an early live take from 1999 in some kind of radio station basement.

Both albums worth checking out, though I prefer the Art of Self Defense, which is available in a pretty good sounding remaster these days.

Anyhoo, moving on for the sake of time. The next album after BBW was Death is this Communion. It has it’s place. Not my favorite, the riffs are good but a bit sludgier, the tone of the guitars seems a bit brittle compared to the previous albums. It has its standout tracks, and some weird instrumental breakdowns with acoustic instruments scattered about. Rumors of war is a Sabbathy rant about exactly what the title suggests, and it’s pretty awesome. Here’s the video.

Worth noting on this record is that a new bass player, Mr. Jeff Matz, joins the fray after a few personnel changes over the years (including Joe Preston on Blessed Black Wings, forgot to mention that). He’s still the bass player to this day, and on this record he adds some interesting dirgy acoustic strings to a few parts.

Next up we have Snakes for the divine. Like Death Is This Communion, it has standout tracks but again not quite the high mark of Blessed as a whole or a recording. The opening and title track leads with an AC DC-esque riff that is quite memorable, and the other standout track Frost Hammer is pretty great as well.


I would put Snakes slightly above Death is this Communion. But it also has some production/mixing issues. While an improvement in some ways over the previous album in terms of putting you closer to the gnarl and gravel in Pike’s mouth, it mixes his vocals too high over his beautiful riff construction, and as a result the songs don’t swallow the listener whole the way they should. I don’t know this producer’s name but I know I remember reading he recorded some Metallica, and that make a lot of sense. It has the same flat sound in some respect, though I would personally take this record over pretty much anything by that band.

HOF is pretty producer dependent, which is really interesting to me. I wonder how these last two records would sound if we dropped Pike’s vocals down to about half of what they are? I think at least that Snakes would be pretty damn glorious for it, but it’s already pretty awesome.

Before we go further we should also stop to say that around this time Mr Pike is basically drinking himself to death. Literally. They have to stop touring so he can either quit drinking or continue to drink and die. Mr. Pike has not been off the drink (….ever?) since his musical career began.

The following are two interviews from around the time of the release of their next album where Pike explains this a little bit. Notice again what a likeable unpretentious guy he is.


The fourth album featuring a not drunk but only stoned Pike is De Vermiis Mysterious and it is recorded by Kurt Ballou from the band Converge. Now I really don’t care about Converge, they do nothing for me, nothing against them, but Mr Ballou’s production breathes new life into the band, along with Pike’s newfound vulnerability. De Vermiis is a brutal, crushing, and deeply emotional record. Where Blessed Black Wings brings you into the room with HOF, De Vermiis takes a step back and puts up a sound with depth for miles by adding a general reverb to everything while the band still moves and shifts at a blistering pace, winding through grooves, diving back, and then charging ahead.

There are a couple interviews around this time where Pike mentions how he didn’t even like the record as they were making it, but when it was finished he was surprised how well it had turned out. I can’t remember where but I remember something along the lines that he was sick of ‘heavy’ music, and that he could not tell what was ‘heavy’ anymore. Now that may not seem like much, but having spent a decent amount of time around metal dudes this is a big deal. As I said, metal is a conservative genre. It’s pretty by the book emotionally and being angry and dark is socially acceptable and anything else like being the least bit vulnerable, is, well, often kinda frowned upon or at least the road less taken. But I think to really get into some soul with the genre you have to be vulnerable and be willing to put yourself out there. 90% of metal dudes would never cop to that. They would keep on spouting tough idiotic nonsense rather than risk sounding like they don’t know what they are doing or that they are even remotely unsure. I think the results of De Vermiis are reflective of that and this record is amazeballs. Here is the official video for “Fertile Green”, the third track off the record. It’s a ridiculous, hilarious, and impressive piece of visual work, and the song has this wonderful winding and rewinding up quality, like a horse that rears up only to return to a full charge.

When I listen to De Vermiis, much of it really sounds like the blues. There are a couple slower jams on here, and the whole album also has some of Pikes strongest singing. Pike has never been one to brag, and even puts his vocal abilities down in interviews, but here on “King of Days”, he bellows forth an incredible warble of longing that no one else could, not even his frequently compared to predecessor, Lemmy from Motorhead. (Not a diss, I also love Lemmy, but Pike really is stellar here, and there’s nothing else quite like it, “Tom Waits singing as a monolith in Beksinksi painting” might be my closest approximation).

Moving on. After we get this record at some point it is announced that HOF will return to work with the same producer as the previous album, Kurt Ballou. This is good news.

It takes a bit, but soon enough we are given Luminiferous, the seventh album by the band. It’s a doozy. While it’s not quite as good as De Vermiis to my ears, it’s pretty dang close. The band really ups the time signatures here, and the whirling, off kilter, completely frenetic, “Slave the Hive” is quite a bit of business.

The entire record, while not quite reaching the level of the plumbed depths of emotion as De Vermiis with its giving-up-a-substance-that-I-was-chemically-dependent-on-and-was-going-to-kill-me singing, is great. It makes up for this with some crazy time work, and a high water mark performance across the album by the drummer, Des Kensel, though he’s always amazing, he really outdoes himself across the entirety of Luminiferous. The title track and “Dark Side of the Compass” are both incredible.

Look up the album version if you like, but I also really liked this visceral live take.

So that about does it. Hope you enjoyed some of this, I always enjoy reading these things even if the music isn’t quite my bag.